Maungarongo Te Kawa

Maungarongo Te Kawa (Ngāti Porou) is an artist, storyteller, quilter and fashion designer.

His whakapapa quilts workshops are based on the traditional concepts of te whare pora (the creative zone), waipunarangi (the source of creativity) and hine te iwaiwa, (the energy of nature).

“These traditional concepts,” says Maungarongo, “are also used by people like indigenous midwives, weavers, artists and healers. They are part of living a whole, healthy, vital life.

“For me making whakapapa quilts is all about wellbeing and mental health through helping people connect with their heritage. It is so empowering to be able to tell your own stories, especially in a new and tactile way.

“Some of my students have been traumatised by their school experience. I use quilting as a way of showing the students how to make the space for themselves, to clear their minds, to focus on the present moment and to let go of the constant babble and stress of the world.

Maungarongo Te Kawa. Photograph, Tink Lockett

“You don’t have to be a good sewer, in fact trained quilters often find it hard because perfection is not what we are striving for. For these people it is about unlearning the quilting process. We are coming from a completely different angle. You also don’t need an English degree to be able to record your own personal story. Perfection has nothing to do with it either. Whatever the student creates and shares is a blessing. Confidence is the desired grade. Failure is not a concept I accept.

“By making a whakapapa quilt we are decolonising our creativity. We move completely away from the western model of mass production.

“We ask people to bring along personal material to use – old family linens, clothes and other items that are of significance to them. We use sewing machines, we paint on cloth, we sew objects onto the quilts. We’ve learned simple techniques from other indigenous cultures, such as basic printing techniques or reverse appliqué.

“Usually the fabrics, linens and clothes that people bring already have a story. For example, sports uniforms, iwi tee shirts, business ties or handmaid doilies. It’s about the personal. These sorts of fabrics have memories money can’t buy.

“The quilts are a whānau learning resource – a gift for the next generation. Most end up on a wall, telling their whānau story.

“Often people don’t know about their great grandparents, where they are from – so they have to find out, and find out about their river and their mountain and put these on their quilts. That will strengthen the whānau, the next generation. It strengthens their spirit. It helps them to feel connected.

“It’s an amazing thing to be able to wrap oneself in the spirit of your land and ancestors and guardians. One need never feel isolated or alone.

“We all know the terrible Māori mental health statistics and we all know the answer – being connected to your family, your river, your mountain. So making the quilts is healing.

“When you are in te whare pora, the creative zone between earth and sky, you are one hundred percent focused in that space.

“To get the creative flow on we begin with pepeha. We usually start with their mountain and river and their story will usually flow on from there. I’m there to guide them gently through this journey, finding their comfort zone and just pushing them on – beyond it. Sometimes it is very emotional, sometimes a large quilt will take 40 hours, and the maker might go through emotional ups and downs, so it’s important that they are in the nourishing, protective, pure mind-set of te whare pora.

“People are usually on a high at the end. Absolute joy – even slightly surprised. They have achieved something. You can see their pride. They can’t wait to give it to their whānau.

Maungarongo takes his philosophy on Māori mental health to mainstream mental health professionals, giving talks or more often presenting the philosophies through his one-man puppet show which he takes around the country. Times are changing, he says, and some people are now ready to learn about Māori healing practices. The puppet show is about a homeless family living in Invercargill, and how they use the old philosophies to get home to Ruatoria. They rely on dreams, they connect to nature, and they believe in people.

Maungarongo is a story teller. He helps others become one too. And it is not just for Māori he says. It is for Pakeha too. Being connected to whānau and nature, and having hope matters for everyone.

Makuini Kerehi from Wairarapa REAP on Whakapapa Quilts

Tararua REAP was the first to ask Ron to offer their workshops back in 2016. It was so popular they ran it three times.

Local Wairarapa people had heard about the programme and approached REAP Wairarapa to run a course in Masterton.

Makuini Kerehi, Kaitakawaenga and one of the ACE coordinators explains why the course is so successful:

Wall hanging made by 3 generations
of one whānau, celebrating their
story, at a workshop in Gisborne.

“We held our first Whakapapa quilts course in May this year, and since then we have run it 4 times.

“I did the first one. It is a journey, often emotional, and for many people it is very healing.

“For me it meant that I had to think about the connectors in my family and how important they are. It made me look at how my children connect, not only to me but to the other families that they have, including blended families. They find their connections and they can lead them back to their whenua. I have been able to show my daughters my quilt, where they are, where they fit, how they fit with others and their connections. And my grandchildren can see where their connections fit.

“When you get to end of the course you have this beautiful thing. I was absolutely thrilled with my quilt. I just love it.

“Ron embeds te reo in the course, so even though I am quite a confident speaker I still learned more reo Māori.

“Our programmes, like whakapapa quilts, are attracting many ACE learners. Te reo Māori with some context and activity wrapped around it seems to be appealing as opposed to being in a classroom type situation. The te reo courses we run are not mostly for professionals. We find that ACE learners like to come to our te reo in action courses. We run a number of these programmes including – waiata, mau rākau (Māori weaponry), raranga (weaving), kowhaiwhai (Māori design).

“These courses build cultural skills and knowledge. Teaching tikanga gives them identity and confidence.”

This article was published in the ACE Aotearoa Summer Newsletter 2018.